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Tough Times Ahead: Housing Decision Cripples Fraternities at Worst Possible Moment

Naveen Sunkavally

President Vest's recent announcement on Tuesday to house all freshmen on campus came as a disappointing shock to me when I first came to campus about a week ago. Not only is the announcement very poorly timed, but it also marks a fundamental shift in MIT's attitudes towards fraternities.

Announcing such a drastic shift in policy two weeks before school starts, when most upperclassmen are still out for the summer, and when most freshmen have just arrived on campus, strikes me as cowardly. Why make such an important announcement when most students are still away from campus? Did the administration think that it would be easier to avoid controversy if it made its announcement near the end of summer?What are freshmen supposed to think right before rush when they hear this announcement?

President Vest said in his open letter that he had had concerns about the timing of the announcement, but he also said that the need to "create a more integrated residential system" outweighed such concerns. The administration seems to believe that fraternity rush will not be affected, but what are freshmen to make of such an announcement right before rush? How can a freshman upon hearing this news not wonder to himself or herself, "If MIT thinks there's something wrong with fraternities, why is it still letting me rush fraternities this year?" And, even if one can argue that freshmen won't care about the announcement, one can not possibly argue that the parents of freshmen won't care.

For fraternities, the announcement must come as a double-whammy, once for the year 2001 and once for now. How can rush this year not be affected by such an announcement? The proper timing for the announcement, if it had to happen, would have been near the end of the last school year, in April or May. An announcement at that time would have at least been in full view of the MIT community and not as surprising to everyone.

But the question still remains: Why is MITletting freshmen rush if it doesn't believe freshmen should be housed on campus in the first place? The answer, of course, is simple.

It's called "housing," and the Institute doesn't have enough of it. The only function of fraternities - at least from what is implied in Vest's open letter - is to provide temporary housing for freshmen. The administration may say that on-campus housing for freshmen the first year will provide students time to think about housing later, but realistically, no one will want to switch to different houses after freshman year. Right now, it seems in MIT's mind that housing concerns outweigh any dangers that fraternities may pose, but come year 2001, housing will be available, and all the freshmen can be moved onto campus.

Fraternities have now been delegated the status of alternate housing, second-hand housing. They are no longer equivalent to dorms. Freshmen can go to live there now, but the Institute doesn't really recommend it, it seems - but it's not saying that because then there would be housing shortage in dorms.

Aside from the timing of the announcement, there's also a philosophical debate over whether housing freshmen on campus is the right choice. Vest says in his open letter that through his decision he hopes to create a integrated residential system and provide a mutually supportive, academically-oriented environment. In other words, the administration believes that fraternities are neither academically-oriented nor mutually supportive. And by "integrated residential system," I suppose Vest means that fraternities are no longer part of the residential system.

Such a sad ending to a story that had an even sadder beginning. The administration has not even a chance for fraternities to correct whatever mistakes they might have made in the past. Every single fraternity, regardless of whether it has been well-behaved or not, will be affected. Independent living groups, most of which are also well-behaved, will suffer. Sororities will suffer, though not as much, since women's rush has always been considered a separate matter from men's rush. Fraternities who have behaved badly have been punished; some have been suspended; one has been closed down. But still, all living groups must suffer.

Alcohol began MIT's reconsideration of fraternity life, but MIT has not come up with a solution that has addressed alcohol (if that is the concern). The administration's decision does almost nothing to control alcohol abuse. Moving freshmen to campus does not teach freshmen to use alcohol intelligently, nor does it prevent freshmen to go elsewhere, such as other dorms, fraternities, or bars, to use alcohol.

In terms of academics, I have not yet come across any figures that show significantly lower grade point averages between fraternities and dorms. Fraternities tend to place their GPAs above dorm GPAs, but, in any case, I doubt that there's a significant difference.

All in all, MIT's decision to house all freshmen and the timing of its announcement sends a clear message: fraternities simply do not matter as much as they did before.